science of us

There’s No Such Thing As a Universal Symbol in Dreams

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Dreams are one of life’s great equalizers. No matter who you are, your sleeping self is free from the logic that rules your waking hours — you can experience the thrill of flying, or start a consequence-free affair, or just spend some time with dream-friends at a really great party. Of course, this same freedom from the rules of waking life also means you could find yourself suddenly naked in the middle of the street, or fleeing from some terrifying attacker. Everything’s fair game.

At least you’re not the only one. Chris Ufere, the founder and CEO of the dream-interpretation app uDreamed, spends his days sifting through all the strange places the subconscious can go. “What we have noticed so far (in terms of common dream topics) is not far from existing research,” he writes in an email. “People of all demographics frequently dream of falling, ending relationships, being naked in public, flying, being chased, cheating in relationships, being unprepared, needing to use the bathroom, quarrels with friends/family and co-workers, the apocalypse and war and violence, being in an airplane, seeing feces, car accidents, attacking someone or being attacked, being drunk, death — the usual suspects.”

The purpose of uDreamed — which allows users to “record, associate, analyze, match, and share their unconscious experiences and consult professionals to gain unique insights” — isn’t particularly new: As long as we’ve been dreaming, we’ve been ascribing meaning to our dreams.
Particularly in the last few decades, many dream dictionaries have been published offering simple or complex meanings for specific symbols and themes. But dreams, especially common dreams like the ones Ufere describes, are influenced by a combination of psychology, culture, and individual circumstances.

“Since we share many symbols and metaphors, there are some general themes that are likely to mean similar things for dreamers,” says Harvard Medical School psychologist Deirdre Barrett, author of The Committee of Sleep. “Certainly a test-anxiety dream is likeliest to have something to do with a waking-life situation of feeling judged by authorities and worried about falling short. The naked-in-public dream is likely to have something to do with a sense of being exposed or failing to conform to social expectations.”

These meanings must then be passed through the lens of the individual. According to Barrett, there’s no such thing as a universal dream symbol: “If someone dreams about a dog,” she explains, “there’s no one thing that’s likely to represent. You want the dreamer’s associations with dogs — a person may tell you dogs are loyal and man’s best friend, or a big animal with sharp teeth that bites, or a cute helpless little creature that needs to be taken care of. A dog dream will mean radically different things for each dreamer.”

Still, analyzing many dreams at once offers insight into how our subconscious thoughts are shaped by the world around us. For example, as final exams concluded for many schools in May and June, uDreamed saw an uptick in the number of dreamers being unable to find their classrooms; Ufere anticipates the same trend as school starts up again this month. “We have also noticed that dream experiences seem continuous with activities the dreamer engaged in his/her waking life,” he says. “We ask dreamers, immediately after recording dream content, to associate their dream experience with events in their waking. For example, we find that 22.6 percent of dreams [in the database] are caused by an internal conflict, 21.3 percent by a recent stress or pressure, 20 percent by something observed recently, 19.8 percent by relationship concerns, and 16.3 percent by familial concerns.”

“The relationship that is emerging is intriguing,” Ufere says, “But we need more data across cultures and demographics to be able to generalize and make predictions.” (UDreamed has yet to launch globally, so their database of dreams is fed primarily by U.S. citizens, with a few dreamers from Africa and India.)

Barrett agrees that demographics is an extremely important factor when discussing common dreams. “It’s hard to talk about ‘common themes’ without specifying at least age range,” she says. “Children dream about all kinds of animals frequently: pets, jungle/zoo animals, and farmyard livestock. Animals in dreams drop off radically for adults. Dogs or cats are still reasonably common for pet owners but other animals become rare,” except when the dreamer has a profession such as farmhand or zookeeper. Even when it comes to something easily classified as an anxiety dream, the general content will differ by age. “By far the most common anxiety dream for children is of being chased by an evil human, animal, or monster,” Barrett explains. But by adulthood, we generally dream of taking tests or being naked in public.

But just because dreams are common doesn’t mean they’re meaningful — or even interesting. For example, a frequently occurring dream for adults involves a social setting with people they seem to know and a feeling of okayness or vague positivity. Instead, much of dream research has been on themes that are “striking but not particularly common,” like sex dreams and dreams in which the dreamer commits violent acts. “Rare types of dreams that are either very desirable or extremely unpleasant are often studied with an eye toward what can increase or decrease their occurrence,” Barrett explains.

Ufere is intrigued by those rare dreams as well. He divides the dreams in uDreamed’s database into two categories, which he calls logical and illogical. “The logical dreams have a clear story and seem to be connected to waking events or unconscious thought,” Ufere explains. Some of the illogical recorded dreams, however, are completely bizarre, like that of the user who wrote, “I dreamed a ball’s circumference would determine the college my daughter would be accepted to, and we were anxiously waiting for a phone call about the radius.” Or, “my arm was a fork and I couldn’t bend my elbow.” Such dreams seem highly individual and show no apparent patterns (or not yet, anyway). For now, at least, they make for good stories — and make that whole naked-in-public thing seem a little less weird by comparison. Above all, they’re a helpful reminder that your subconscious has no rules.

There’s No Such Thing As a Universal Symbol in Dreams